In the narrative Trump and Barr tell, the events that have unfolded in cities across the country are not rebellions or uprisings rooted in legitimate popular anger. They are not, as Martin Luther King, said, “the language of the unheard.” Instead, they are carefully orchestrated, preplanned violence carried out by a tight-knit cabal as part of a sinister master plan.
When Barr addressed the nation on Saturday, he announced “outside agitators and radicals are exploiting the situation.” According to Barr, “in many places it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics.” Barr then warned that federal law makes it a felony to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot and that the Department of Justice would be willing to prosecute such crimes.
Trump, reiterated these themes on Twitter. He falsely claimed “80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE,” seemingly referring to a statement about the home states of the arrestees initially made by the mayor of St Paul but almost instantly proven wrong. Trump was also drawing on the trope of “outside agitators” that has been deployed to delegitimize the Civil Rights Movement and every other mass movement in American history. He referred to professionally managed protests and laid the blame for the violence on Radical Left Anarchists,” “ANTIFA led anarchists,” and “ANTIFA and the Radical Left.”
Finally, on May 31, Trump ominously tweeted, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”
We should establish a few facts here. Donald Trump could tweet he was going to part the Red Sea, abolish gravity, or raise the dead from their graves, and much of the US media would devote time to discussing what such actions would mean for America as though they were a serious possibility. But they aren’t.
The same is true in this case. While the Secretary of State can designate groups as “foreign terrorist organizations,” the key word here is “foreign.” When the Obama administration was faced with an error-laden WhiteHouse.Gov petition by reactionaries to declare Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, they responded by saying, “The White House plays no role in designating domestic terror organizations.the White House played no role in designating domestic terrorist organizations. The US government does not generate a list of domestic terror organizations.”
Those on the Right salivating at the thought of mass roundups of leftists will be disappointed, as the government cannot proscribe a domestic political organization. Even during the Cold War-era Red Scare, the Supreme Court made it clear that the government could not criminalize joining an organization with both lawful and unlawful aims, unless an individual joins with the specific intent of furthering those unlawful claims.
When it comes to foreign terrorist organizations, the Supreme Court has upheld an extremely broad definition of material support that essentially allows the government to criminalize political speech. Nonetheless, the Court has stated US law does not “not prohibit independent advocacy [of] or membership” in such an organization.
On top of all that, it’s important to establish what antifa is and is not. Antifa is short for anti-fascism. It refers not to any single organization, but to a broad ideology (opposition to fascism). Of course, one cannot declare a broad ideology or political affinity a “terrorist organization” — “antifa” can’t be outlawed anymore than “feminism” or “neoliberalism” can.
When Donald Trump or right-wing commentators invoke Antifa, they are not referring to an actual existing political philosophy. They are invoking a far-right conspiracy theory. In the minds of some, antifa is not only a political organization; it is the hidden hand behind a whole litany of supposed bad acts.
In this sense, antifa occupies the role in the right-wing imagination as the Communist Party did in the middle of the twentieth century. While some on the Right associate antifa with anarchists, others frequently label them as communist or Marxist, highlighting continuity with Red Scares of the past. The Right doesn’t distinguish much between different left tendencies, viewing them all as a uniformed enemy.
Beyond drumming up Red Scares, right-wing fixation on antifa is the extension of another conspiracy theory: the myth of paid protesters and professional rioters. These claims were frequently parroted during both Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests, but they’ve now dramatically escalated with the president, key elected officials, and the less fringe parts of the right-wing media, all of which are now echoing this talking point and often overlap with antisemitic, George Soros-related conspiracy theories.
The protests across the nation are outpourings of outrage at the continuing police murders of unarmed black people. By meeting protests with violence, police are choosing to escalate. None of that works for the narratives Trump wishes to spew, so he’s tapped into the right-wing id by drumming up a shadowy left-wing villain.